By Evan Chan
Director Wang Kar-Wai has become synonymous for his dream-like style of directing, as evident in his 1995 movie Fallen Angels. The movie tackles themes of loss, loneliness, and moving on through its various characters. Following Wong Kar-Wai’s beloved Chungking Express, the two movies were originally intended to be the same film. However, Wong Kar-Wai chose to separate them due to their cumulative length. It’s for this reason, many viewers think of Fallen Angels as incomplete or a worse version of Chungking Express, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.
The movie tells the stories of three main characters. Leon, a hitman who’s trying to get out of the killing business. Michelle, Leon’s partner who arranges his hits and is deeply in love with him. Lastly He Qiwu, a mute ex-convict who falls in love with a woman named Charlie. The stories of these three characters occur at the same time, independent from each other for most of the movie.
It’s made clear from the beginning that Leon no longer enjoys being a hitman. He decides to quit his job but is unable to tell Michelle as he knows she is deeply infatuated with him. Instead, he chooses to run away and leaves behind a message for Michelle telling her to forget about him. While eating at a Mcdonald’s, Leon encounters a blonde woman. They have multiple sensual interactions but Leon is unable to open up to the blonde woman. He decides to leave her in hopes that she’ll find a man who truly loves her.
Leon finally confronts Michelle but she gives him one last job to complete. It’s unclear why but Leon accepts. It’s in this last job where Leon is set up by Michelle and is killed. After Leon’s death, Michelle is overcome with immense grief and decides to never get personally involved with partners again.
He Qiwu became mute when he ate an expired can of pineapple. After escaping from prison Qiwu spends his time breaking into various street shops to operate them after hours, and hassling strangers into giving him money. While trying to hand out pamphlets in a restaurant Qiwu meets a woman named Charlie. He accompanies her as she tracks down the woman that stole her ex from her. During their time together Qiwu falls in love with Charlie and the two begin dating. Qiwu becomes entirely convinced that Charlie is his soulmate, but everytime they are together she only talks about her ex. After a date at the baseball field Charlie leaves Qiwu and runs away with her ex.
Now heartbroken, Qiwu decides to settle down and establish a familial connection with his father. Months later, Qiwu is working in a shop when he sees Charlie again but she no longer recognizes him. While working at a Japanese restaurant Qiwu steals a video camera. He uses this camera to film his father in his everyday life. Shortly after this Qiwu’s father dies and Qiwu sits in his old apartment rewatching the recordings of his father smiling. The death of his father prompts Qiwu to return to his old ways of breaking into shops and hassling strangers for money.
One night, Qiwu gets into a fight in a restaurant. On the other side sits Michelle, post Leon’s death, and we learn that the two of them have randomly encountered each other multiple times. The movie ends with Michelle riding on the back of Qiwu’s motorcycle as they drive through the streets of Hong Kong.
In every scene of the movie there is a looming feeling of emptiness. From the entire movie only happening during the night, to the main characters being the only people seen in the city for a majority of the scenes. The characters feel as if they lack any real connection.
A prime example of this is in the various sex scenes woven throughout the movie. The first we see is of Michelle who after going to the bar Leon frequently visits, returns to her bed and pleasures herself. Michelle is dressed very erotically in a slim dress and fishnets, but is alone in her rundown apartment laying on a big mattress. The angle at which we see Michelle is very wide and unflattering. Despite this very sensual setting, the scene just feels very awkward. We can feel how sad Michelle feels despite the pleasure the scene may portray.
After Leon tells Michelle she needs to forget him and move on she again goes to her apartment and pleasures herself. This time, it’s paired with a scene of Leon and the blonde girl making love. Again, we see that the scene is shot in a wide angle this time of Leon and the woman. The blonde woman appears to be enjoying it but we see no joy in Leon’s expression. Representing his failure to make a genuine connection with this woman who he has agreed to go home with.
When we cut to Michelle we see her stop as she begins to cry on her bed—knowing that she’s losing her partner and the man she loves so dearly. The message Leon leaves for Michelle is in the form of Shirley Kwan’s song “Forget Him” which plays throughout the scene. By looking at the lyrics we see Michelle’s thought of letting Leon go. The song roughly translates to, “To forget him is to forget everything/ It was only him who made me treasure myself/”(Lines 1 and 5).
We see the dependency that Michelle has on Leon. Losing him means losing what makes her life worth living. Without loving him she feels as if she’s unable to love herself. These scenes help to show how our characters try to fill their lives with shallow meaningless love to fill their lack of genuine attachment. Love is seen as a beautiful and sacred thing, but the “love” these characters feel is extremely lonely.
Qiwu’s story is told in a more comedic light but he experiences the most loss in the movie. Despite trying his hardest, Qiwu constantly fails at forming human connections. The people he hassles on the street loathe his presence and pay him just to leave them alone. When Qiwu first meets Charlie, she pays no attention to what he tries to show her, instead only using the change he gives her to call her ex. It’s only after dragging Qiwu along on a mission to find the mysterious woman Charlie called Blondie that he falls in love with her. During their relationship Qiwu’s hair begins to turn blond as well. This indicates that he’s conforming to Charlie’s values as he tries to get closer to her. Despite this, Charlie never loved Qiwu. He even acknowledges this to an extent. Qiwu equates himself to a store and Charlie to a customer, and says he hopes she’ll shop in his store for a while. From this we know that Qiwu himself knows his relationship with Charlie is fleeting. No matter what he tries her mind will always be fixated on her ex.
When she finally leaves him and goes back to her ex Qiwu doesn’t act surprised, but still feels heartbroken. This was a woman that he truly believed was his soulmate, but the love in their relationship was always one-sided. After Charlie leaves, Qiwu’s hair returns to its normal color showing his readiness to be with other people. He finds this company in his father, and now his love is being reciprocated by a parent who really cares about him. Qiwu feels as if he’s finally found a stable and happy connection, but this is broken by his father’s untimely death. Just when he had started to feel happy again he’s left alone in the now vacant house.
At first glance it’s hard to understand the message that Fallen Angels tries to portray through its blurry camera sequences and neon lights. The film’s main theme is longing, and this is shown through the events of the three characters seeking a form of stability in their lives. Leon, who had gotten so close to leaving his dangerous killing life behind, dies in his final job. Michelle, who craved so dearly for some form of “warmth,” becomes aimless and isolated after the death of her partner. Finally Qiwu, who searched desperately for a human connection, loses his father, the only person who truly appreciated him. These characters, who had come so close to freedom of societal restraints, fell from grace and wound up the same people they started the movie as. They became “fallen angels.” In a way however, each of the characters got what they wanted in the end. Leon no longer needed to be a hitman, Michelle finally found “warmth” in the presence of Qiwu, and Qiwu finally found a loving connection that would hopefully last with Michelle. The film leaves us with a hopeful image, as Qiwu and Michelle ride around the city on his motorcycle we see for the first time a bright blue sky.
Featured Image (at the top of this page): Block 2 Distribution